Obligation is a derail: some thoughts on negotiation in loving relationships

You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:

Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”

Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”

“No, never!”

“What, never?”

“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”

All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.

That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.

The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.

The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.

Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.

Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.

Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.

Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)

To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)

While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?

The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.

Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)

Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.

But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.

Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.

*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.

What has contentedness with monogamy got to do with polyamory?

I’m happy with my relationships.  Not directly related to this, however, is the fact that I’m not looking to meet anyone right now.  That is, I’m not actively seeking new partners right now, but its not merely because I’m happy.

There are women I’m interested in, to varying degrees, with whom I interact somewhat frequently but I either do not have any reason to believe my interest is reciprocated, or I know that this interest is not, in fact, reciprocated.  But I’m OK with that, because I’m not really looking anyway.  That may change at some point, but right now I’m content with the number of relationships I have.

Yesterday I was reflecting on this happiness and this contentment and it occurred to me that this was a feeling I had had while monogamous, in the past.  There were times, when exclusively committed to a girlfriend, where I had periods of genuine happiness with my life and contentedness with the nature of my relationship.  And this, in context to where I am now, made me realize two things about some of the reactions I hear from monogamous people upon being confronted with the possibility of polyamory.

The first is that that sense of happiness, when in a monogamous relationship,  does not imply that a person is built for monogamy, necessarily.  That would be mis-attributing the source of the happiness to the structure, rather than the contents, of their relationship.  Such a person, being happy and content with their monogamous relationship, could still pursue polyamory and be equally (and possibly more) satisfied with that alternative to sexual and romantic exclusivity.  The feeling of contentment with one’s relationships does not have to mean that one must merely tread the cultural water of mono-normativity, because perhaps being content, or even happy, is not always enough to stop the pursuit of each.  There are many potentialities in life which too many people miss because they are merely content where they are.  Perhaps they are capable of more, and don’t pursue more because they are merely ‘content’ or ‘happy enough.’

I call ‘bullshit’ on that.

A monogamous person who is happy with their partner may, in other words, be interested in other people but much like with other aspects of our lives (such as where faith comes in), be subject to confirmation bias when it comes to attributing that contentment to their exclusive relationship per se.  That is, they remember all the great aspect of the commitment they have (remember, commitment does not imply exclusivity), but forget all the times they have desires to love—erotically, romantically, etc—another person.  They feel a general contentment but may be mis-appropriating that contentment to the nature of the relationship, rather than the person they are with.  And being with other people does not (necessarily) take anything away from that great relationship, now does it?

If you answered yes, you are delusional.  Exclusivity does not a better relationship make, and loving two (or more) people does not necessarily diminish the love you have for any one of them.  If you really believe that then I will file you next to the creationists in terms of being un-attached to reality.

While I’m not actively pursuing anyone right now, or even feel a strong impulse to do so, I may in the future.  Hell, I might start doing so tomorrow, for all I know.   And this does not necessarily mean that my relationships are broken or that I’m lacking anything from my current partners, it just may mean that I might meet someone really awesome (as I did when I met Gina) or that variety in itself may be valuable to me (it is, just not all the time).

In short, I’m open to the fact that what I may want, need, etc will probably change throughout my life, and I want to keep my life open to all those possibilities out there (and, more importantly, I want to keep those opportunities open for those close to me).  And if someone else, say some monogamous person I’m explaining polyamory to, were to take their contentment at any given time  as a sign that the structure of their relationship is the cause of that contentment, then they are making a leap in logic which is not warranted.

The awesomeness of people bring us happiness and contentment, not how many of them you are romantically/sexually involved with.  How can adding more awesome people to your life be anything but, well, awesome?

I am not content because I’m polyamorous (again, per se), I’m content because the people I’m closest to are amazing, beautiful, and satisfying people.  In my case there just happen to be two of them who are willing to share me, but if their happened to just be one (or three) that would be awesome and contentment-inspiring.  But if I were monogamous, perhaps still married to Ginny, knowing and being around someone like Gina and wanting her constantly would NOT be a position of contentment for me.  And if I were monogamous thusly and intended to stay that way, I would therefore have to avoid being around someone like Gina (who I just can’t help but love) if I wanted to maintain the illusion of perpetual contentment with my hypothetical monogamy.

And this is what I think many monogamous people are doing; they are content often (perhaps very often), attribute that contentment to the exclusivity itself (hopefully tying it to the awesomeness of their partner), and ignoring or pretending that their extra-relationship desires don’t exist or would destroy that contentment by some magic unknown to me.  So they go on convincing themselves that monogamy is better for them, that polyamory would not work for them, etc while the truth very well may be that they would be happier being polyamorous if they were just willing to do the work.

This is why polyamory is superior.  Not because being with more than one person is better per se, but because being polyamorous, even while only involved with one person at any given time, allows open-ended pursuits of happiness and contentment rather than keeping us deluded that we are content in circumstances where we are unnecessarily limited, romantically and sexually.

Are you content with your monogamous relationship? Fine, what does that have to do with polyamory?

Meaning and Happiness

I’m not going to address the canard that without god we can’t have meaning in our lives. OK, yes I am. But only briefly, and the rest will only deal with that question indirectly. Yes, it is quite obvious that people without a belief in gods have meaning in their lives. Perhaps not inherent, absolute, and cosmically significant meaning, but those things are illusory, just like gods.

I have been, since childhood, rather introspective. I do a lot of thinking about thinking, reflecting on experience, and asking simple “why…” questions about mundane things that most people take as granted.  To me, the beginning of skepticism begins with the ability to ask why something is, and then asking for reasons to keep accepting it.  I never merely accepted the way things are and that they need to be that way. Thus, my becoming a degenerate deviant is not surprising.

Ultimately, I think seeing polyamory, atheism, and skepticism as deviant and degenerate is, well, unfortunate and morosely funny.  It does not speak well of our species that such basic values as demanding evidence for claims and then not accepting worldviews that can’t stand up to such demands is the weird thing. But I digress…

Anyway, I’m one of those annoying people who thinks asking why we do and believe certain things is good. I also am interested in various experiences. I was very interested in meditation while young, and much of what I learned and experienced during those times in my life have influenced how I see the world, how I think, and how I try and improve as a person.  I “experimented” with drugs while younger (meaning I enjoyed their effects while on them), and while I have little interest in such things now, I am glad that I had those experiences.

When I got to college, I was very interested in taking as many courses that dealt with religion, philosophy, and anthropology as I could. I was interested in questions about meaning, belief, and knowledge in culture and psychology. Is there any surprise that I graduated with a degree in ‘religious anthropology”?  Is there any surprise that I write about religion, think about religion, and ultimately oppose religion?

I knew that the history of ideas which dealt with meaning, experience, etc are contained in philosophy, theology, and religion. I also knew that I didn’t believe in any gods, had strong issues with religions, both organized and less-than-organized, and that I had an attraction to science and philosophy.

After reading religious thinkers from over the centuries, including many scriptures and apologetic writing, I knew that these things had something to offer us, even if much of it was meshed with absurd theological assertions and assumptions; I knew that it is all too easy to conflate interesting psychological insights with the tradition adjacent to their origin. That is, I understood that a Catholic, Moslem, or Hindu thinker could say something interesting, insightful, or even true without that idea having any logical relevance to the theology they believed.

So, any sophisticated theologian who attempts to claim that this gnu atheist is unfamiliar with sophisticated theology, I can confidently reply that they are simply incorrect. No Courtier’s Reply can stick to me, especially since the Reply is absurd on its face.


For a few years I have thought about how we, as a community of reason, could talk about such things outside of a theological context.  I mean, philosophers do it all the time, right? (And I do have a MA in philosophy).  Then today I ran into this post by Dale McGowan which talks about the importance of social interactions in happiness.  It is a quick review of a study about why religion makes people happier.

Essentially the point is encapsulated here, stolen from McGowan’s post, in these quotes by Chaeyoon Lim:

[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect…

and Raising Freethinkers co-author Amanda Metskas:

[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)

This is illuminating, and speaks to precisely the point that many gnus have discussed over the last few years; it is not the beliefs which make people happy (they are usually harmful), but it is the social connections that keep many people in church.

The implication, I believe, is that we do need to do more to create social environments for atheists and such.  Skeptics in the pub, conventions, campus groups, etc are all great steps in that direction, even if some people take things too far in terms of emulating religion.  That is, Alain de Botton is wrong precisely because he does not just want to keep the social aspects around, but he wants to keep some of the theological parts alive too.

Part of what will cultivate community, I think, will be organizing under a banner, a label (or a very small set of labels at most), and a small set of major organizations who represent what we do share, our political concerns, and our social presence.  The Reason Rally was a step in defining much of these things, and the next few years will have a lot to tell us about the nature of our collective message, what organizations will be saying them, and how broad we need to be to draw people in.

We have issues, as a community, in terms of drawing in the voices of women, ethnic and racial minorities”, genderqueer people, and even blue collar secularists.  I don’t know what all the solutions are, but I am keeping my ears tuned to people who offer some and will be thinking and writing about it from time to time.

I know I am guilty of many of the things that turn many people away; my writing is esoteric, my tone is sometimes harsh, and I include commentary which does not fit in with most atheists and skeptics (specifically polyamory.  To what degree, if any, I may change any of this will depend on the strength of arguments, the evidence supporting said arguments, and my ability to actually change.

But I think we, the community of reason and skepticism, have a lot to say about how to create meaning in important ways and how to live lives of general contentment and happiness.  Fore me, my life project to be happy lead me to atheism and polyamory, while sharpening my skeptical tools along the way.  I think my story and views have something to add to this conversation.

How much I love polyamory

Anyone who has seen me recently will attest that I am pretty happy with my life right now.  For a while, things were going pretty badly for me, but in the last year or two, things really turned out pretty well.  I can safely say that I would not use a time machine to avoid any of the bad times, just in case it were to prevent the good that I have found.

And a lot of this has to do with polyamory.  You see, being polyamorous has allowed me to maintain two very important and rewarding relationships in my life.  And for readers of this blog, you may have figured out that I am now willing to share them with readers here, at least insofar as their writing can provide a slice of their awesome-pie.

I am excited by the prospect of having more voices here at polyskeptic.com, whose perspectives differ from mine in some ways even if we agree on most things when it comes to polyamory and skepticism.  And I hope that you, whether you follow this blog, stop in now and then, or found us accidentally, will enjoy the perspectives and points of views that we all offer.

There is a lot that our culture does not understand about polyamory, but I think seeing it in action helps make it easier to comprehend.  I could blather on for pages (and I often do!) about why I think polyamory is a wonderful option for people, how it is in some ways more honest and authentic a lifestyle in comparison to monogamy, or how skepticism and polyamory should overlap more (there is a larger project I am working on, which I hope to publish soon-ish, which will address that very issue).

The people that post here, as of now, are my family.  They are my fiance (we will be married in less than 3 months!), my girlfriend, and possibly more to come.  I hope that aspects of our personal lives do seep through this blog in such a way that shows that we are pretty normal, in a lot of ways.

I mean, we are freaks in that we reject gods, monogamy, and some other social niceties, but in addition to that we function, day-to-day, like most people do.  We have dinner, drinks, watch movies or TV together, and sometimes we do awesome things like produce burlesque shows and so forth. OK, so that last one is not so normal.

Fine, our relationship structures are more complicated, but all that is about is more people sleeping with other people than any group of people who are friends and spend time with one-another.  Think of us like a group of people, like in a sitcom, who are more intertwined sexually and romantically than you are used to seeing in a sitcom.  There is funny shit, sometimes drama, and there are important moral lessons embedded in plot arcs which slowly erode the traditional concepts of love, sexual morality, and family.

In fact, we should write that sitcom.  (Ginny and Gina, are you taking notes? I want daily reports on the status of this project!).

In other words, the Religious Right hates us, the Left tends to marginalize us (because they don’t want the Right to think we are associated with them), and most of the center do not even know we exist.  Well, all parts of the spectrum share this ignorance, I suppose.  I hope to help change that.

So, in conclusion, I am very happy with my life right now.  I hope that happiness translates into an awesome blogging experience for years to come.  I hope you continue to read, and I hope that your feedback can help us better communicate our worldview to a larger world which is largely unaware of what polyamory (or skepticism, for that matter) is all about.


Happiness and Exclusivity

I had a conversation with a long-time acquaintance (and one-time friend) a couple of years ago about, well, a lot of things but which included polyamory.  This is a person who claimed, credibly, to have had experience with things such as group sex, alternative sexual communities, etc.  Nonetheless she had grown out of all of that, and she seemed to view my active polyamorous lifestyle as a sort of atavism towards our younger days when we were young and experimenting with ourselves.

She also seemed to have somehow concluded that my view of monogamy was to view it as prudish and ridiculous.  Now, under some circumstances I might be willing to make such a declaration, but certainly not in general.  I think that the assumption of monogamy is often problematic and I would like more people to understand the skills which I have learned from being polyamorous, but I do not think there is anything inherently bad, immature, nor reprehensible about deciding to be monogamous.

But one thing she said has stuck with me since that conversation.  It was right after she said that she had experiences with non-monogamous activities that she said that she was with a man (her husband) who made her happy.  She emphasized the fact that he had qualities which she appreciated, both physically and otherwise, which sufficiently satisfied her.  And while I don’t remember the exact words, she implied that my desiring, or perhaps even requiring, multiple relationships was immature.  She said that if I ever had a real woman (like herself, whom she considered out of my league) that I would not be able to handle her and I only chose this lifestyle because I was with inferior, insecure, women.

The basis for this claim was to indicate some recent women I had dated.  One recent long term relationship, a girl I still talk to occasionally but with whom I have no continuing relationship , she referred to as a “fool.”  The woman with who I had been living, but who had recently broke up with me, was referred to as highly insecure (hence my ability to talk her into polyamory), and the girl I was with at the time and with whom I had recently moved to Atlanta (yeah, her…) just seemed to my acquaintance to be similar to the last; insecure, uninteresting, being manipulated and possibly victimized by an insecure and predatory man.

Let’s just say this acquaintance of mine does not think highly of me, at least anymore.

To her, at least at that time, this polyamory thing was for insecure or at least immature people who are trying to overcompensate for something lacking.  Real adults (“real” men and women) don’t do silly things like that  It’s an old charge, and an amusing one for me.

But what stuck out to me was her repeated insistence that she was happy with her relationship as it existed.  She saw no reason to add to it in any way, and I was missing something in not being with a “real woman” in a “real” relationship.  I have no doubt that her claim to happiness was (and probably still is) sincere and probably true.  I know her husband (I’ve known them both since high school), and he is a person I like.  But something about her comment has stuck with me, and today I want to talk about why.

Conflating structure with quality

Here is what I think my old acquaintance, as well as many others I have talked to since who have made similar arguments, are missing.   If you are happy, is your happiness dependent upon the structure or the quality of your relationship?

By the “structure” of your relationship I mean the negotiated rules and boundaries.  Are you permitted to pursue other relationships? What are the limitations on those relationships? Are you married, just dating, and will you be co-habitating?  Things like that.

By the “quality” of the relationship, I mean the level of communication, shared goals and activities, and other related considerations.  Are you honest both with yourself and your partners? Do you try and communicate and address issues as they arise? Do you make an effort to maintain your relationship and not merely coast?  Things like that.

In terms of the health of your relationship, it is not really relevant what the structure of your relationship is. Whatever rules and boundaries you agree to (non-coerced, obviously), you can be happy so long as you are doing the necessary work involved.  The quality of your relationship seems to be a measure of your happiness itself.  In other words, the level of communications and so forth are tool you use to make and maintain a healthy relationship.  If you don’t communicate well, don’t share goals, and you don’t like each other then being happy in that relationship seems impossible.

So, what does it matter whether this acquaintance of mine was/is happy being monogamous? What does that have to do with my being polyamorous? Why address the structure of my relationship rather than the quality?  Well, perhaps she knew little to nothing about the quality of my relationships (this seemed true).  And in fact the quality of those relationships at the time were not ideal, but they were good.  But she didn’t know that, and she showed no interest in addressing that in any case.  For her, it was sufficient to say that she was monogamous, was happy, and so I was just overcompensating for something by doing what I was doing.

Happiness has nothing necessarily to do with structure of your relationship.

If you are honest with your partner(s), if you make an effort to communicate effectively, and you share goals, interests, and quality time with them, then you have a much better chance at being happy with them.  Once you decide to do the necessary work to improve whatever relationships you have, you have the ability to make them healthier and more satisfying.  And this can be done whether you decide to be monogamous, to swap partners, to go to swing clubs, to have casual sex outside the relationship, or start your own polyamorous commune where everyone belongs to everyone equally.

What matters in terms of being happy is being honest with what you want, communicating that to the people you care about, and doing the work it takes to maintain a healthy relationship based upon those considerations.  Anyone can do this, whether they are monogamous like my acquaintance or polyamorous like me.  I think this is something that our culture in general needs to better understand.

What I am saddened by is that my friendship with this person has not continued, in part because of this conversations.  But largely it was the events around that time, much of it due to my own misdeeds, led to her distancing herself from me.  And since then I have done considerable work to improve myself, and I believe that all of her criticisms of me at that time are no longer relevant.  Nonetheless, now all that remains between us is the inauthentic polite chit-chat at our occasional meetings at a party, which has been thankfully rare.  I think if she knew me now, as well as the quality of my relationships, she could see the two amazing women of high quality (“real womenTM“) I have built relationships with.

But she’s stubborn, and so it will likely not come to be.  But I’m happy, and if she is happy then I suppose I can live with lost friends.  What bothers me is being judged for what I’m not, by a person who seems to have no interest in knowing who I am.  If I’m going to be judged, I want to be judged for what I am.